Consumer Psychologist Facebook Forum


Lars Perner, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing
Department of Marketing
Marshall School of Business
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA 90089-0443, USA
(213) 740-7127


International Marketing

Note: The issues covered below are discussed in more detail in the International Marketing section of this site.

Scope. A number of issues are involved in marketing internationally and cross-culturally:

Protectionism.  Although trade generally benefits a country as a whole, powerful interests within countries frequently put obstacles—i.e., they seek to inhibit free trade.   There are several ways this can be done:

Cultural lessons.  We considered several cultural lessons in class; the important thing here is the big picture.  For example, within the Muslim tradition, the dog is considered a “dirty” animal, so portraying it as “man’s best friend” in an advertisement is counter-productive.  Packaging, seen as a reflection of the quality of the “real” product, is considerably more important in Asia than in the U.S., where there is a tendency to focus on the contents which “really count.”  Many cultures observe significantly greater levels of formality than that typical in the U.S., and Japanese negotiator tend to observe long silent pauses as a speaker’s point is considered.

Product Need Satisfaction.  We often take for granted the “obvious” need that products seem to fill in our own culture; however, functions served may be very different in others—for example, while cars have a large transportation role in the U.S., they are impractical to drive in Japan, and thus cars there serve more of a role of being a status symbol or providing for individual indulgence.  In the U.S., fast food and instant drinks such as Tang are intended for convenience; elsewhere, they may represent more of a treat.  Thus, it is important to examine through marketing research consumers’ true motives, desires, and expectations in buying a product.

Approaches to Product Introduction.  Firms face a choice of alternatives in marketing their products across markets.  An extreme strategy involves customization, whereby the firm introduces a unique product in each country, usually with the belief tastes differ so much between countries that it is necessary more or less to start from “scratch” in creating a product for each market.  On the other extreme, standardization involves making one global product in the belief the same product can be sold across markets without significant modification—e.g., Intel microprocessors are the same regardless of the country in which they are sold.  Finally, in most cases firms will resort to some kind of adaptation, whereby a common product is modified to some extent when moved between some markets—e.g., in the United States, where fuel is relatively less expensive, many cars have larger engines than their comparable models in Europe and Asia; however, much of the design is similar or identical, so some economies are achieved.  Similarly, while Kentucky Fried Chicken serves much the same chicken with the eleven herbs and spices in Japan, a lesser amount of sugar is used in the potato salad, and fries are substituted for mashed potatoes.

There are certain benefits to standardization.  Firms that produce a global product can obtain economies of scale in manufacturing, and higher quantities produced also lead to a faster advancement along the experience curve.  Further, it is more feasible to establish a global brand as less confusion will occur when consumers travel across countries and see the same product.  On the down side, there may be significant differences in desires between cultures and physical environments—e.g., software sold in the U.S. and Europe will often utter a “beep” to alert the user when a mistake has been made; however, in Asia, where office workers are often seated closely together, this could cause embarrassment.

Adaptations come in several forms.  Mandatory adaptations involve changes that have to be made before the product can be used—e.g., appliances made for the U.S. and Europe must run on different voltages, and a major problem was experienced in the European Union when hoses for restaurant frying machines could not simultaneously meet the legal requirements of different countries.  “Discretionary” changes are changes that do not have to be made before a product can be introduced (e.g., there is nothing to prevent an American firm from introducing an overly sweet soft drink into the Japanese market), although products may face poor sales if such changes are not made.  Discretionary changes may also involve cultural adaptations—e.g., in Sesame Street, the Big Bird became the Big Camel in Saudi Arabia.

Another distinction involves physical product vs. communication adaptations.  In order for gasoline to be effective in high altitude regions, its octane must be higher, but it can be promoted much the same way.  On the other hand, while the same bicycle might be sold in China and the U.S., it might be positioned as a serious means of transportation in the former and as a recreational tool in the latter.  In some cases, products may not need to be adapted in either way (e.g., industrial equipment), while in other cases, it might have to be adapted in both (e.g., greeting cards, where the both occasions, language, and motivations for sending differ).   Finally, a market may exist abroad for a product which has no analogue at home—e.g., hand-powered washing machines.

Country of origin effects.  Traditionally, a product’s country of origin has had a considerable impact on how the product is perceived by consumers.  Some countries were thought to be good at making certain things (e.g., the French being famous for wine and cheese with the Germans and Japanese being known for manufacturing excellence).  One country could have a good reputation for one type of product but not for another.  For example, the British might be perceived as a high quality maker of sports automobiles but a poor quality maker of food.  A beer brewer in France and a wine maker in Germany—both being near the border to the other country—deliberately obscured the origin of the products to avoid being judged negatively.  Some firms may engage in the dubiously ethical practice of giving a product an appearance of being associated with—if not being outright manufactured in—a country with a favorable origin impact on the product.  For example, a manufacturer of perfume might print the instructions on the container in French even if there is no intention of exporting the product to—let alone making the product in—France.

Today, the world of manufacturing is more complicated.  Consumers are increasingly aware that products are often not made in the country associated with the brand.  Many Sony products, for example, are produced in countries other than Japan.  Many “Japanese” cars made for the U.S. market are now manufactured in North America.  It is now also recognized that high quality products can be designed and made in countries such as South Korea and even China.  Few people know in which country a particular model of the Apple iPod® has been made.  The country-of-origin effect today, then, is considerably less than it has been in the past.

Measuring country wealth.  There are two ways to measure the wealth of a country.  The nominal per capita gross national income (GNI) refers to the value of goods and services produced per person in a country if this value in local currency were to be exchanged into dollars.  Suppose, for example, that the per capita GDP of Japan is 3,500,000 yen and the dollar exchanges for 100 yen, so that the per capita GDP is (3,500,000/100)=$35,000.  However, that $35,000 will not buy as much in Japan—food and housing are much more expensive there.  Therefore, we introduce the idea of purchase parity adjusted  per capita GNI, which reflects what this money can buy in the country.  This is typically based on the relative costs of a weighted “basket” of goods in a country.  The actual formula is very lengthy and complicated, but as a simple illustration, one might example a weighting based on 35% of the cost of housing, 40% the cost of food, 10% the cost of clothing, and 15% cost of other items.  If it turns out that this measure of cost of living is 30% higher in Japan, the purchase parity adjusted GPD in Japan would then be ($35,000/(130%) = $26,923.

In general, the nominal per capita GNI is more useful for determining local consumers’ ability to buy imported goods, the cost of which are determined in large measure by the costs in the home market, while the purchase parity adjusted measure is more useful when products are produced, at local costs, in the country of purchase.  For example, the ability of Argentineans to purchase micro computer chips, which are produced mostly in the U.S. and Japan, is better predicted by nominal income, while the ability to purchase toothpaste made by a U.S. firm in a factory in Argentina is better predicted by purchase parity adjusted income.

It should be noted that, in some countries, income is quite unevenly distributed so that these average measures may not be very meaningful.  In Brazil, for example, there is a very large “underclass” making significantly less than the national average, and thus, the national figure is not a good indicator of the purchase power of the mass market.  Similarly, great regional differences exist within some countries—income is much higher in northern Germany than it is in the former East Germany, and income in southern Italy is much lower than in northern Italy.  The relevant figures, then, should generally be based on the segments of interest within the respective country.  For example, if it is estimated that only homes in the upper 30% of income in a given country would be able to afford the product in question, this is the group that should be used for comparison.

U.S. laws of particular interest to firms doing business abroad.